A column about small bars

Sydney pubs are all the same. They’re big, noisy and crammed full of people who don’t realise how loud they’re shouting because they’ve had too much to drink. And while that’s fine if you’re in the mood, I sometimes feel like a quieter, smaller place. A more intimate place, where you can talk properly without having to shout over the dodgy dance music or Chisel covers band. Un-Australian, I know.

In other cities like Melbourne and Adelaide, there are numerous cosy, small bars that allow conversation, and all cafes are licensed. But Sydney’s self-defeating licensing laws largely restrict alcohol to pubs, which means that people only go there to drink, and generally a lot. It’s supposed to stop people from having too much, but visit any pub late on a Friday night and you won’t see much evidence of “no more, it’s the law”.

I saw the opposite extreme on a recent visit to Tokyo, in a tiny block of narrow laneways and tiny buildings called Golden Gai. The area contains several hundred separate bars in an area of about the size of your average RSL club car park, each with its own quirky theme. There was one entirely devoted to Pink Floyd memorabilia, and another full of teddy bears, but the most bizarre was called Cremaster, after a series of strange, experimental art films made by Bjork’s boyfriend. Talk about wanting to keep numbers down.

We tried the most famous (well okay, the one in Lonely Planet, to be honest) – La Jetée, which has been run for over thirty years by a Japanese woman who’s obsessed with French films. She’s only got enough room for about eight people crammed up against the bar and around a small table in the corner. So as an Australian, I was baffled about where she’d hidden the pokies.

The most interesting feature is a rack of signed half-empty bottles left by famous film directors – among them Zhang Yimou, Francis Ford Coppola, and Quentin Tarantino. We were keen to nick some of Quentin’s vodka, but since there was only one other person in the bar, we felt that might have been frowned on. To add insult to injury, the owner politely declined my offer to sign a bottle in my official role as a columnist for The Glebe.

The whole bar is literally the same size as my bathroom, which gave me an ingenious idea. I could open Sydney’s first authentic Japanese-style watering-hole in my apartment, dispensing drinks and down-home advice from the vanity. My patrons would be crammed on little stools in the bath, and under the towel rail. And one lucky punter could take the most generous seat in the place, on the toilet.

The quirky bathroom décor would be oh-so cool, and I could call it “Salle de bains” to draw in the high-class guests. Best of all, if someone had too much to drink, I could just turn the shower on them.

Unfortunately, though, the licensing laws in this city make my dream impossible. Thanks to the pervasive influence of the hotel lobby, there are only a limited number of pub licenses, which is why they all install pokies to offset the cost. Basically, it’s a huge cartel. (Possibly the true meaning of “no more, it’s the law”.) So I’ll have to open my bathroom-bar as an illegal speakeasy, I think. If you know where to go, just press my buzzer and say you need to use the toilet.

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